WHEN 15-year-old Akshay Nair started his personal project under an international baccalaureate programme, little did he know that it would contribute towards helping Malaysian wheelchair tennis athletes achieve their Paralympic dreams.
The Fairview International School student, who is an avid tennis player, said he was inspired to raise awareness on wheelchair tennis after observing a small group of players training for the sport.
“Every time after my lessons at Jalan Tuanku Abdul Halim, I would catch them in training. But it was during the Asean Para Games in 2017 that I noticed there was not much of a crowd supporting the national athletes.
“Although tennis is not as popular as footbal in Malaysia, I was still expecting a bigger crowd. So when the time came for my school project, I thought this was something I could look into.
“Wheelchair tennis is featured at the Olympics, and it struck me that something could be done to raise awareness for the sport and help it become a mainstream event just like any other sporting event in the world, ” he said.
Being a football lover and a member of his school football team, Akshay could have chosen the popular sport like his other schoolmates, but decided to do something different instead.
“The objective of my project was to bring focus to wheelchair tennis in Malaysia and inspire the public so that more people would consider taking up the sport and give the athletes due recognition.
Akshay decided to turn his project into a fundraiser after speaking to the athletes. He learned that they were struggling to qualify for the Paralympics because there were not enough funds to enable them to participate in tournaments.
“I found them to be incredibly passionate about the sport, so it led me to turn the exhibition match into a fundraiser.”
He said one of his biggest challenges over the six months of preparations was trying to sell tickets for the exhibition match as he was not representing a formal organisation and lacked credibility.
Still, with help from his family and friends, Akshay managed to raise over RM3,000 for the sport’s governing body, Wheelchair Tennis Malaysia (WTM), after the exhibition match which saw over 50 attendees.
“I thought I could gather a bigger audience. Despite this, I think everybody enjoyed it, especially my friends and teachers who got to experience first-hand what it is like to play tennis in a wheelchair, ” said Akshay.
“It is so hard to do what they do, and I hope this can help them in future tournaments.”
Asean Para Games gold medallists Abu Samah Borhan and Yushazwan Yusuf were among eight tennis players who were part of the event along with WTM vice-president Lenny Ghandi.
“This is a great way for the public, especially able-bodied people, to know more about wheelchair tennis.
“The sport will also gain additional exposure through Akshay’s schoolmates who attended the event, ” said Abu Samah.
“In Japan, the support and exposure on para athletes is much higher compared to our country, so activities like this give us a chance to be known to the public and we hope it will attract sponsors for the association, ” added Yushazwan. Echoeing the comments of the national athletes, Lenny said getting the public to experience the challenges faced by wheelchair tennis athlete could help gain empathy and highlight WTM’s plight in qualifying for the Paralympics where funding is concerned.
“Organising this event was a very humbling move from Akshay and we are all so touched by his decision to help us, ” he said.
With the Tokyo 2020 Olympics and Paralympic Games looming, the athletes say it is a crucial time for them to get as much support as they can from fellow Malaysians to rally spirits before heading off to Japan.
Lenny added that the estimated cost to send a player overseas for one tournament was an average of RM5,000 and to qualify for Tokyo, each athlete would need to take part in at least 10 tournaments.
“It is a critical time for us to qualify for the Paralympics as we are close to making the cut.
“We just need to make sure we get the necessary ranking points between January and May; we can’t always rely on the National Sports Council (MSN), so we have to turn to corporations and well-wishers, ” added Yushazwan.
Akshay hoped the event was able to make some impact on public awareness and through the funds raised, help the athletes in their quest to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics.
“I would say they deserve to have the chance to show their best at the Paralympics and I hope that everyone, including the corporate sector and government, can find a way to give our wheelchair tennis athletes a chance.”
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